Tana Aiyejina takes a look at the man, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, his contribution to the development of football in Nigeria and the shambolic treatment meted on him in death by a country he served so well.
Former Super Eagles captain and coach Stephen Keshi was laid to rest on Friday in hometown Ilah in Delta State amidst tears and eulogies from Nigerians.
The 54-year-old football legend died on June 8 in Benin City, Edo State, just three days before Shuaibu Amodu, another ex-Eagles coach, also gave up the ghost in the same town.
While Amodu was buried immediately according to Islamic rites, Keshi’s burial was fixed for last Thursday and Friday by the Federal Government.
However, no high-profile Federal Government official was present on Thursday when the burial of the late football icon began in Benin City and Asaba, the Delta State capital and when he was laid to rest on Friday in Ilah.
The absence of top ministry officials may not be unconnected with preparations for the Rio 2016 Olympics, as most of Team Nigeria’s delegation began the long trip to Brazil on Friday.
Amidst a paucity of funds, the sports ministry has earlier stated that it would honour the late icon after the Olympic Games, leaving Keshi’s family to move ahead with the burial plans, which began with a church service at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Benin City on Thursday.
Sports minister Solomon Dalung earlier this month inaugurated a 20-man committee for Keshi’s funeral. The committee, which was headed by the Permanent Secretary of the sports ministry, Christian Ohaa, with the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, as his assistant, had budgeted N30m but Dalung reportedly said the government chose a low-key funeral because Keshi left behind a family that had to be catered for.
Prophet unrecognised at home
Togo FA president Guy Akpovi led a delegation from his country for the burial rites of their former coach, who qualified the tiny West African country to their first and only World Cup outing in 2006.
A memorial service was also held in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, for Keshi on July 23 by African football legends.
But back home, while NFF boss Pinnick was present in Benin City and Asaba at the beginning of the funeral rights for the fallen ex-footballer, no top sports ministry official or FG’s representative were present in both venues.
Austin Eguavoen, Mutiu Adepoju, Aloy Agu, Peter Rufai, Uche Okechukwu and Friday Ekpo were among the 1994 Super Eagles teammates of Keshi present on the occasion.
Former Eagles captain Eguavoen wondered if Nigeria was worth dying for, after he watched his ex-teammate buried without the FG presence and the panache of someone conferred with the national honour Commander of the Order of the Niger by ex-President Goodluck Jonathan after becoming only the second man to have won the AFCON both as a player and as coach just three years ago.
He was quoted as saying byAfricanfootball.com, “I am not shocked by the way the government has treated this event. For instance, most of us have yet to get the houses the government promised us when we won the Nations Cup in 1994.
“You are only energised when you have been looked after. One keeps wondering if Nigeria is worth fighting for or even dying for?”
Keshi’s son Femi was also not happy with the way his father was treated in death.
“The Federal Government did not deliver on the promises they made to us as regards our father’s burial,” he stated.
Keshi’s teammate at the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations Bright Omokaro said the failure of the authorities to honour their heroes is a major reason why national team players no longer give their best for the country.
The ex-NNB defender said, “Keshi was a great guy who was not appreciated. This is the reason why I don’t blame players who don’t honour matches or don’t give their best when they are invited to the national team, because they know that when they are injured, it’s over for them; nobody cares.
“In Keshi, we had someone who gave his all for the country as a player and coach. He was an exemplary leader and deserved to be respected in death. It’s unfortunate. We all are going to die; it’s the legacy that we live after us that matters. ”
Keshi is hero-worshipped in Benin City, after his exploits with defunct NNB FC and it was evident at the packed Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium where his body lied in state on Thursday. Edo indigenes and top state officials came out in their numbers to pay their last respect to their fallen hero.
In fact, Edo All Progressives Congress Deputy Governorship aspirant Philip Shuaibu scored for the All-Stars Team in a 1-1 draw against an ex-internationals side in a match played in honour of the late coach.
“Everyone came out to honour the Big Boss,” Edo FA boss, Frank Ilaboya said. “The Edo sports commissioner, Permanent Secretary in the sports ministry and several other top Edo dignitaries were present to honour Keshi. Even his teammates were well represented.”
Long battle with officials
Right from his emergence in Nigerian football in the early 1980s, Keshi was locked in several battles against the authorities, who saw him as a rebel who was out to alter the status quo. As a starry-eyed youngster, Keshi’s impact on the national team from the Flying Eagles to Super Eagles was colossal and when his teammates were afraid to fight for their rights and bonuses from the authorities, Keshi did for them.
And from his playing days through his 44 months in charge of the national team between 2011 and 2014 as coach, he was always involved in one spat or the other with his employers, the NFF. When he was alive, Keshi was maligned and blackmailed; some people were even allegedly paid to bring him down by those who employed him.
Officials described him as arrogant but they couldn’t deny the fact that the Big Boss, as Keshi was fondly called, brimmed with so much confidence. Even his coaching adversary Ephraim Mashaba, coach of the South African national team, acknowledged it.
“We should celebrate the life of an icon. Keshi was a confident man. I have never seen Keshi angry and he was always looking for excellence,” he said at the memorial service for Keshi in Johannesburg.
A typical example of his self-confidence came to play in 2004, when he was being interviewed for the Togo coaching job. When asked what it would take to move Togolese football to the next level, Keshi replied, “Me.”
And in baffling fashion, the Delta-born coach, against all odds, qualified the minnows for the 2006 World Cup.
Keshi, one of only two men to have won the Africa Cup of Nations as player and coach, captained the Eagles for 11 years, winning the Africa Cup of Nations gold (1994), silver (1984 and 1988) and bronze (1992).
In 2013, as coach of the Eagles, Keshi lifted the Cup of Nations again after Nigeria defeated Burkina Faso 1-0 in the final in Johannesburg.
He also led the Eagles to the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, led the team to the FIFA Confederations Cup and qualified Nigeria for the African Nations Championship for the first time, winning bronze at the competition.
Tributes for ‘Skippo’
“It’s very sad that we are not going to see him anymore. It’s very emotional,” ex-Eagles midfielder Adepoju said.
Omokaro described Keshi as a leader. “I hate to talk about him as someone who is dead. He was a great guy, a motivator and a leader. I remember the 1988 AFCON final. Cameroon’s Roger Milla was a thorn in our flesh and I hacked him down. Keshi told me to take it easy but I replied him, ‘Get out, you know I don’t like losing.’ But he said, ‘Senior, take it easy, we’ll play and win.’ If he had used harsh words on me like I did, it could have disorganised the team but he didn’t,” he said.
As a player, Keshi would forever be remembered as the man who began the mass exodus of Nigerian footballers to Belgium in the mid-80s, which turned a new leaf for Nigerian football, while as a coach, he charted a new course for African managers after qualifying two countries to the World Cup and winning an AFCON title.